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Ruby Dee's big break

At 83, the actress gets her first Oscar nomination. For her role in 'American Gangster,' she drew upon her experiences growing up in Harlem.

January 30, 2008|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

Who says there are no decent film roles for women over 40? Ruby Dee found one at 83.

The longtime civil-rights activist and stage and screen actress' small role in Ridley Scott's "American Gangster" -- as the mother of ruthless Harlem drug kingpin Frank Lucas -- could have been fairly insignificant. But Dee added her own fire to the character, giving Mama Lucas a strength and poignancy that shines through a film otherwise populated by lowlifes and flawed heroes -- earning the actress her first Oscar nomination.

Mama Lucas is the dirt-poor mother of a large brood, who initially turns a blind eye to the source of eldest son Frank's (Denzel Washington) success when he brings the family from the South to live the good life in New York. When Mama finally realizes her son is a monster, she gives him a hard slap in the face. It is a pivotal moment for the character and the film.

You have been making movies since 1950 and here it is 58 years later with your Oscar nomination. What does that mean to you?

It's very satisfying. It goes to show you if you hang in there long enough. . . . I call myself just working on the line, you know. I never thought about getting Oscars. I am delighted to be nominated for one and I am in such great company.

Were you surprised that Denzel and Ridley didn't get nominated?

Yes. I don't know why not, his performance was wonderful and the direction was great.

Did you do any research on Mama Lucas?

Oh, my dear, I grew up in the neighborhood. The whole background of this thing was already with me forever. I don't remember life before Harlem. I used to go to South Carolina every summer with my stepmother, I knew the whole scene. I knew from the shootings in Harlem and the riots and the police brutality -- that was with my early consciousness from when I was 5 or 6 years old. And the banks not lending black people money . . . and so many people played numbers and played the horses and tried to get along those ways.

Had you worked with Denzel before?

We had done a show together on Broadway, I don't know if you know this, "Checkmates." And so it wasn't a surprise that he suggested me for the part. I knew his mother, his first teacher. I remember when he and his wife got married and had their first baby.

Could you talk about the slap?

I have always been against the gangster as hero. With Jimmy Cagney you had to like him after the film was over no matter who he killed, but I have always been wary with the preoccupation with the glamour of the criminal. After reading the script, all these things crowded into my mind. So I said to Denzel one day when I got a minute to talk to him -- it was the busiest set I had ever been on -- I said, "We never get to know why Frank is this way. He could have been a businessman." He got to telling me some details about Frank's past. He saw his cousin get shot in the face by the Klan, and there was no retribution, they got away with it. And with racism, he thought he had no other way out [than to become a mobster]. So I said to Denzel, "I think we need to explain this man."

He said, "We'll talk about that," but we never got a chance to talk about it because I didn't have that much to do in the film. So I wrote him a letter, which I sent to his office in California. I didn't even know he got the letter. But the day we shot that scene with the slap, evidently he took into account some of the things I had said in the letter because Ridley Scott redirected the moment. From the description in the script, I didn't feel she was strong enough to reprimand her son for being a criminal.

But between Ridley and Denzel, that moment was taken care of while we were shooting that scene. Ridley told me, "Why don't you just slap him?"

It was her moment of recognition that something had gone wrong in her son's life even though she loved him. After I saw the whole film, the slap was very well justified; it made up for her blindness.

You are still going strong at 83.

Well, I didn't grow up with that word "retirement" as part of my consciousness. I didn't grow up with professionals that retired. I thought retiring was when you are tired and go to bed.

I am writing a great deal. I am writing plays. I have also conducted workshops and I have ideas yet to bring to fruition. My whole life is not defined by what Hollywood does.


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